For nearly thirty years, Lenny Kravitz has been making waves in pop culture with a tried and true prescription of peace, love, and rock n’ roll. The man formerly known as Romeo Blue has been hitting the road hard in support of Raise Vibration, his eleventh full-length studio LP recently released to strong and spirited reviews. Bringing a well-rehearsed band and greatest hits setlist to the San Francisco scene, on Thursday, October 4th, Kravitz made his regular Bay Area tour stop, performing to a two-thirds full Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
Taking the stage twenty past nine to an atypically subdued Bay Area assembly, the erstwhile veteran retro-rager and core members of his band immediately cranked out what might be his biggest hit, 5’s saccharine-guitar rock anthem “Fly Away.” It’s hard to believe this song is twenty years old, but it certainly got people’s attention as they scurried towards the stage or their seats in the balcony. The bandleader stormed the platform atop the drum riser and immediately assumed the rock god pose while ripping guitars rang out in every direction. The band was locked in early and quickly segued into the Beatles-eque “Dig In”, off 2001’s multi-platinum certified Lenny.
From the very beginning of the set, a few thing were crystal clear; firstly, at 54 years young, the son of Sy Kravitz and Roxie Roker hasn’t lost a step, a hair, gained a pound or a wrinkle. He quite simply might be the sexiest man alive, and that mojo is workin’ overtime when he prowls a stage. After a largely forgettable “Bring it On” (Its Time for a Love Revolution), a horn section stepped onstage right and joined the fray, and the vibe immediately launched skyward. Lenny and company, now bathed in canary lights, uncorked the massively-popular “American Woman”, The Guess-Who track that Kravitz reimagined to great success for the Austin Powers movie franchise.
Lenny Kravitz – “Are You Gonna Go My Way” – 10/4/2018
After stomping through the chunky “American Woman” groove for a good while, Lenny threw it over to Ludovic Louis for a masterful trumpet solo, and his contribution set the room ablaze. Soon enough, Lenny had directed the troupe into a slow, deliberate, impassioned reading of Peter Tosh’s iconic call to revolution, “Get Up Stand Up”, a song and mantra so very appropriate in these tense and troubled times. Bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, the late David Bowie’s low-end technician for many years, really bent down low to mine a proper steppin’ razor rumble, while drummer Franklin Vanderbilt laced up the One-Drop riddim just right.
Louis was electrifying on the trumpet, blowing ethereal melodies into the night. The horn section was rounded out by two saxophonists; Michael Sherman was in a supporting role all evening, while LK band veteran Harold Todd serenaded the auditorium with searing solos throughout. Todd goes back to the roots of the funk-rock/jazz-funk scene in SoCal, where he was making records with DJ Greyboy (peep the credits on albums Freestylin and Land of the Lost) while Karl Denson handled sax for Lenny’s first two albums and tours. Shortly thereafter, Denson and DJ Greyboy teamed up, and Todd would join Kravitz’s band, where he’s been crushing the game for 25 years. Keyboardist George Laks has also been on the freedom train with Lenny for many moons, and on this night he would shine on Hammond B3, Fender Rhodes, and the occasional analog synth textures.
After the Kingston vibes subsided, on “It Ain’t Over til It’s Over” (Mama Said) Lenny turned back the clock to 1991. He delivered a nuanced run through his omnipresent paean to former wife (and mother of daughter Zoe Kravitz, a talented artist in her own right) Lisa Bonet. This wildly-popular song is clearly an homage to soul icons that have come before him, however this is undeniably Kravitz’s voice and his lane. The chill zone continued as he grabbed the acoustic for a couple of ballads, “Just Can’t Get You Off of My Mind” never really connected and was mercifully short, but the titanic “Believe” that followed was a revelation of sorts. One of many beloved slow jams found on 1993’s Are You Gonna Go My Way, “Believe” still manages to make singing about accepting Christ as your savior sound crazy, sexy, and cool… especially coming from a half-Black, half-white, half-Jewish, half-Christian dreadlocked rock star. Speaking of torrid, lusty energy onstage, he followed “Believe”’s priestly-benediction with a luscious reading of 5’s riveting “I Belong to You,” among this writer’s favorite songs in the canon.
For 25 years, virtuoso guitarist Craig Ross has been Lenny’s wingman and secret weapon. Buried beneath an enormous afro, clad in bell-bottoms and butterfly collars, and wielding only the finest in classic Gibson Les Paul’s and SG’s, Ross absolutely slays the stage each and every night with the type of rock n’ roll bombast and swagadelic attitude that provides the bandleader with a perfect foil. More than any other song, this kinetic kinship between the lead axeman and his boss is evidenced on “Always on the Run”, the best song found on a nearly perfect album, 1991’s Mama Said. Sadly, this rendition would be a short one, and BGCA was robbed of the ten-plus minutes of Swag Olympics that is usually “AOTR” outro jam. Lenny seemed to prioritize signing several t-shirts and vinyl from the audience, over captaining even one mercilessly-crunk stomp sesh. Nonetheless, Craig Ross came to the Bay to ball out on lead guitar, and this much weight, he did lift.
Lenny Kravitz – “American Woman” – 10/4/2018
[Video: Live Concert]
“Where Are We Runnin'” (Baptism, 2004) gave way to “The Chamber”, the ornate and emotional opus found on 2014’s Strut. The latter took on a Blondie-esque aura, oozing early 80’s Lower East Side, most certainly a (welcome) departure from the pop drivel that proceeded it. “The Chamber” was quite possibly a nod in ethos and texture to the dearly departed Prince, who was a dear friend to Kravitz for nearly two decades.
To close the set, Kravitz chose the pop single “Again,” much to the chagrin of many in our area. Yet the entire swollen contingent returned for a lengthy encore excursion into the title track of Lenny’s debut album, 1989’s Let Love Rule. The song that first put Kravitz on the map, where he has remained both on the charts and in our hearts. Fans belted out the chorus over and over again while each horn player took a ceremonial solo; Kravitz jumped in the audience, ran around the floor being chased by women, reappearing up in the balcony for another round of choruses, before racing back onstage to close the jam. As expected, the re-dreadlocked steeziologist strapped on the ever-ready Flying V and leaned on his trusty compadre Mr. Ross for a fiery rendition of the title track to 1993’s humongous smash LP Are You Gonna Go My Way. The skeletal band that remained onstage tore through the classic jam with reckless abandon, displaying a youthful energy that might as well been the same as when the song first took the culture by storm a quarter-century ago.
Lenny Kravitz remains the epitome of an iconic rock star from the halcyon era of loud guitars, big hair, funky fashion, and heaping slabs of mojo. For my first Lenny show in a dozen years, this writer would have preferred more jams, less radio hits, and just a couple of rarities or chestnuts, not to mention the phenomenal, empowering title track to the brand-new LP Raise Vibration. With that said, the man is a contemporary pop star, and he’s gonna play the lowest common denominators and most popular songs; so the setlist was really to be expected. It was also performed masterfully, with vigor, panache and more than a touch of class. We can only hope that when Lenny finally releases his long-awaited, all-funk, blaxploitation concept album Negrophilia, he hits the road for some smaller rooms and unpacks a few deeper cuts for the forever faithful.
Leaving the stage to a thunderous roar, Lenny left us with this gem: “We are ALL made out of love, to love. We are ALL of the same source.”
Setlist: Lenny Kravitz | Bill Graham Civic Auditorium | San Francisco, CA | 10/4/2018
Set: Fly Away, Dig In, Bring It On, American Woman (The Guess Who cover) > Get Up, Stand Up (The Wailers cover), It’s Enough, Low, It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, Can’t Get You Off My Mind, Believe, I Belong to You, Always on the Run, Where Are We Runnin’?, The Chamber, Again
Encore: Let Love Rule (extended jam), Are You Gonna Go My Way